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Building a Math Mindset

By Stacy Rezos, 4th Grade Teacher at Avenues New York

“I can’t do this...yet!” and “My math brain just grew!” were just a few comments made during our math mindset activities in 4th grade. All students in the Lower Division spent the first two weeks of school building and strengthening their math mindsets. The purpose behind this important work was to establish a supportive math community that encourages all learners and to build upon the belief that everyone can do math at a high level. Through this work, students engaged in challenging math activities—specifically focusing on the process, rather than correct answers. These math challenges propelled students to use various strategies to solve a problem. After each challenge, students were asked to reflect on the process and discuss the strategies used. The Chang Jiang and Hudson students referenced a classroom chart during their reflective conversations that listed the five key strategies for learning mathematics: draw it out, teamwork, experiment, start with a smaller case and look for different resources. Through this reflection, the students were able to recognize which strategies were most helpful in their process.


The idea behind building a math mindset comes from the groundbreaking work of Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She identified “growth mindset” as the belief that basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. In a math classroom, students with a growth mindset are those who keep going even when work is hard, and who are persistent. The first two weeks of math activities this school year focused on changing “fixed” mindsets to “growth” mindsets. This shift in mindsets can help cultivate a love of learning and resilience that can lead to greater achievement in mathematics. We celebrate mistakes and use them as opportunities for future learning and development. We encourage deep thinking and praise perseverance through problems. And we utilize reflective conversations to communicate thinking in a way that others can understand.


Some of the 4th grade math challenges included students working in teams to create various two-dimensional shapes using a piece of string. Those who successfully created 2-D shapes were challenged to work together to create 3-D shapes. A second activity had students create a rectangle that had a border of 14 using square foam tiles. During this activity, the students were prompted to find other ways to show these rectangles and to explain their mathematical thinking. Finally, students participated in an activity called “One-Cut Geometry,” during which they were challenged to cut out various shapes using only one straight cut.


All of these mindset activities challenged the students’ math brains, allowing them to try out various strategies, and lock in to the growth mindset mentality that we hope to foster this school year.